Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The King’s Gambit

January 28th, 2010 · 1 Comment

With the possible exception of Texas A&M’s poultry judging squad, no college team is as dominant right now as University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s chess club. The school recently earned yet another national title, its ninth in the past 14 years. It has done so by recruiting a United Nations’ worth of grandmasters, including such notables as “The Polish Magician” and “The Uzbekdragon”. But the UMBC program first rose to prominence thanks to “The Exterminator”:

[Coach Alan] Sherman contacted the nation’s top high school chess coaches and suggested they send their standouts to UMBC. He also spread the word through postings on websites and online news groups that UMBC was looking for top-notch chess players. And, perhaps most important, Sherman persuaded the university to give a full tuition scholarship to the winner of the Maryland Scholastic Championship, which UMBC would host. In the spring of 1995, Sherman landed his first blue-chip recruit: William “The Exterminator” Morrison.

Then 35 years old, Morrison had been raised in New York City. As a youngster, he passed much of his time in Washington Square Park—the bustling heart of Manhattan’s chess district, which served as the backdrop for the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Morrison came from a poor family, and gladly took money off unsuspecting opponents.

After dropping out of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Morrison served in the U.S. Air Force before falling back on chess to make ends meet. As he competed in regional tournaments, his reputation spread inside chess circles. In 1995 alone, Morrison won the chess championships of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. “He doesn’t like to be referred to as a chess hustler; he considers himself a chess professional,” Sherman says.

That spring, Morrison turned up at the UMBC Open. Sherman, who knew him only by reputation, was excited to meet the chess talent in person. After learning that Morrison had not finished college, Sherman offered him a scholarship on the spot. Morrison, nearly twice as old as the typical entering freshman, accepted.

As is so often the case with college athletics, the snagging of one top-flight recruit opened the floodgates for others. And Coach Sherman goosed along the process by convincing a major corporate sponsor—Coca-Cola—to pony up for some extremely sweet chess scholarships.

Now, you might assume that such scholarships would be unnecessary, since chess masters must obviously be extremely good students given their obvious brilliance. But that isn’t always the case, apparently. Which hopefully means the inverse is true, too, because we’re truly terrible at the game—don’t think we ever beat Sargon a single time.

Also, no chess post could be complete without this.

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  • Lord of the Board

    […] few months ago, in the course of writing about the phenomenal track record of the UMBC chess team, we briefly flicked at the notion that chess intelligence is a unique beast that doesn’t […]

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